By Liz Tracy
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The name Duran Duran once conjured up the most glamorous of all possible worlds. Simon Le Bon singing "Rio" while swinging off the mast of a speeding yacht. Nick Rhodes wearing an off-the-shoulder sweater while playing a Roland keyboard. The three Taylor boys -- Andy, John, and Roger -- preening and pouting before thousands of frenzied teenage girls. They were fabulously wealthy, tremendously good-looking, and, for a while in the mid-Eighties, at the center of a celebrity hysteria not seen since the Beatles.
The five English lads could do no wrong back then. Le Bon himself, during the height of the Duran mania, admitted to Rolling Stone that the band could "go on-stage and pass gas, and it wouldn't make a difference."
"'Fart.' I said, 'fart,'" Le Bon insists, speaking by phone from a hotel room somewhere in Connecticut. There's a bit of mischief in his voice, a little coyness in his light accent. "I didn't realize fart was a rude word. It's just a good old English, Anglo-Saxon word. It's just a word for a... fart."
Duran Duran has certainly floated its share of stinkers. "Hungry Like the Wolf" was a terrific pop song, but is there any defense for "Union of the Snake" or "The Reflex"? Maybe not, but those songs hit No. 3 and No. 1, respectively, on the Billboard singles chart. In their prime Duran Duran enjoyed no less than nine Top 10 hits. The band's third album, Seven and the Ragged Tiger (1983), went double platinum. Duran Duran mania bordered on the frightening: In the early Eighties, the band's appearance at a Virgin record store in New York City required mounted police to corral hundreds of rioting females.
By 1985 the band had split into two short-lived side projects. Even those struck pay dirt. The Power Station featured two Taylors (guitarist Andy and bassist John), the drummer from Chic (Tony Thompson), and the heaving vocals of Robert Palmer. The group scored two Top 10 hits with "Some Like It Hot" and a souped-up cover of the T. Rex classic "Bang a Gong (Get It On)." Arcadia, fronted by Le Bon and including Rhodes and Andy Taylor, released only one album, a piece of art-rock trivia called So Red the Rose. It went platinum.
Back then R.E.M. was just a college-radio cult band with a couple of catchy tunes and some quirky videos. The Cure was a semipopular goth-rock group without one hit single in America. U2's star was on the rise, but it would be another two years before The Joshua Tree conquered the world. Duran Duran were the true darlings of the new wave.
But as John Taylor once observed, "After Live Aid, it was like, 'U2 in, Duran out.'" The new wave crested after 1985 or so and then quickly ebbed. So did Duran Duran's phenomenal fame. The band's hot streak began to falter with Notorious (1986) and grew even colder with Big Thing (1988). Duran Duran's greatest-hits CD Decade already seemed like a eulogy when it was released in 1989. Liberty, issued the following year, failed to chart at all.
But whose nasal voice is that on the radio these days, whining, "Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty Barbarella"? None other than Simon Le Bon's. The Duran Duran name lives on, though all the Taylors have long since taken their leave. Rhodes (who helped found the group in 1978) still plays keyboards, while guitarist Warren Cuccurullo, formerly with campy new-wavers Missing Persons, makes the group a trio. Duran Duran's most recent album Medazzaland -- their eleventh full-length record -- appeared in stores early last month, and the dancy single "Electric Barbarella" has already made a dent on the singles chart.
Contrary to popular belief, Duran Duran is not yet washed up. "We've had our biggest hits in the Nineties," Le Bon asserts. He sounds proud but also a tad defensive. That's understandable: Every time his band releases an album, critics talk about the "return" of Duran Duran. In fact they never went away. For those who weren't paying attention in 1993, Duran Duran hit the Top 10 twice -- with "Come Undone" and "Ordinary World." And though most people scoffed at Thank You (1995), the band's collection of cover songs, a few were impressed. Duran Duran's version of "Perfect Day" was heralded by Lou Reed as "the best cover ever completed of one of my songs."
So perhaps it shouldn't surprise listeners that Medazzaland is a solid pop album, relying on good old-fashioned hooks, notably those found in "Electric Barbarella" and the even catchier "Big Bang Generation." The title track is an experimental bit of spoken-word weirdness not unlike the recent Blur song "Essex Dogs." Rhodes does more writing on this album than ever before, revealing a wicked sense of humor in "Be My Icon," a tale told from the point of view of a stalker. Le Bon stretches himself creatively with "Michael You've Got a Lot to Answer For," a simple singer-songwriter piece that's one of the album's more distinctive tracks.
"To me, the album's very much like an urban landscape," Le Bon notes, "a very electronic sound and very industrial at times. 'Michael' is like a stream that bubbles up in the middle of all this concrete, very organic and flowing and fresh.
"It's rather like driving along a very fast road, along a landscape with buildings and tall trees, with shadows and then bits of light, and you get that flashing of light. In terms of light, I would describe the album in a word as 'flicker.'"
That's the Le Bon we all know and love: overly poetic, unintentionally pretentious. The man who once wrote, "I light the torch and wave it for the new moon on Monday/And a firedance through the night/I stayed the cold day with a lonely satellite."
To this day teens around the world pore over Le Bon's words. "I don't know if I like to be analyzed like that," Le Bon admits. "I'm glad the interest is there. The songs, they're meant to be with music. I'm not sure whether my lyrics stand up to scrutiny as poetry. I feel a little bit inadequate." Scores of Duran Duran-related home pages dot the World Wide Web, with countless gigabytes devoted to Le Bon's cryptic lyrics. There are sites from Australia, from Italy, and, of course, from Rio de Janeiro.
The U.S., amazingly enough, has never been Duran Duran's strongest market, despite the fact that the band was once guaranteed to pack arenas when touring stateside. These days the venues aren't as big, but they're sizeable. The band will perform in South Florida this week at the 4000-seat Sunrise Musical Theatre.
Who's buying these tickets? Nostalgic ex-cheerleaders eager to relive their high-school days in the Eighties? Teenyboppers who are just now discovering the Duran Duran mystique? Open-minded indie-rockers? Can it be that Duran Duran is attracting a whole new audience? "I don't know," confesses Le Bon. "It's been over two years since we played a live show."
These days when Duran Duran takes the stage, there is no question of merely passing gas. "Not at all," says Le Bon. "I'm sure there are other groups who could go on-stage and fart, and they'd be screamed at. But not us. People have come to expect something from us. Our fans -- whoever they are now -- have come to expect a certain level of communication. They come to hear the music."
While Duran Duran may have a large fan base, it has yet to make many converts among critics. That "electronic sound" Le Bon mentions has been interpreted by some critics as a late bid to cash in on the electronica trend. Le Bon's heard the accusation plenty of times in recent weeks. His initial reaction was hostile -- one interviewer who posed the electronica question received a sharp retort that included a four-letter word -- but now Le Bon has a more sophisticated answer at the ready.
"We were always an electronica thing," he contends. "Maybe the electronica thing is trying to do Duran Duran. It's true. Funny hairdos and electronic dance music was Duran Duran -- now it's Prodigy. That's what we were when we started. What else would we be apart from a dance-rock-pop band?"
It's worth noting that Duran Duran has done little to alter its sound or its image over the years. Rhodes has commented that Medazzaland is not too dissimilar from that 1982 gem Rio -- which is as good as saying that Duran Duran hasn't radically departed from the mildly funky British pop it's been creating for more than fifteen years. As for its image, Duran Duran still looks like a group of jet-setting playboys, sporting sleek blazers and colorful shirts (and, for Rhodes, a little bit of makeup). Rhodes now looks a little gaunt and Le Bon a little hefty, but they've retained their aura of rock-star glamour.
This might mean the band has stayed true to its vision. Or it might mean that Duran Duran gathered dust while the rest of the world tuned in to hip-hop, trip-hop, ambient, and grunge. In either case the ragged tiger that is Duran Duran has stayed on its feet far longer than anyone ever expected. Le Bon chalks up the group's endurance to "the fact that we still manage to thrill ourselves, musically." Whether they can keep it up for another decade is anyone's guess.
"Fuck knows, man, I haven't got a clue," allows Le Bon, letting out a kind of sigh. "This is the same question people asked me ten years ago, and I hadn't a clue then. If we're here in another two years, I'll think myself lucky."
But suddenly the singer grows passionate. "Having said that, I love the music we make. We've stuck together. We owe it to each other to carry on, to keep our morale up and to continue. It's become a real challenge to us to survive. Because we have been knocked, we've been knocked by the critics, and we've been knocked by a lot of people. It's difficult. And to prove them wrong is a great satisfaction to us."
Duran Duran performs at 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, November 26, at the Sunrise Musical Theatre, 555 NW 95th Ave. in Sunrise. Tickets cost $25 and $32. Call 954-741-7300 for more information.